Measure for Measure

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4/5OFS
TUESDAY-SATURDAY, 7.30PM When so many larger-scale Oxford productions play it safe, it’s heartwarming when one sticks its neck out, especially when the risks pay off. Measure for Measure is usually thought of as a ‘problem’ play but its director Pippa Needs has found original and intelligent solutions to its uneasy tragicomic balance. Needs has transposed the setting to the Eastern Bloc’s twilight years, yet thankfully shied away from overly specifying the location. Interpreting the Duke as a Shakespearean Ceau?escu – the Romanian leader who kept control through personality alone – freshens the play’s meditations on authority and reminds us that this is no Solomon we’re dealing with here. Likewise, the news that Vienna’s suburbs are to be ‘plucked down’ conjures up images of the cold concrete slums that still litter the Eastern European landscape. Leo-Marcus Wan is a constant delight to watch as Angelo, exuding an unsettling serpentine energy that enlivens every second he’s onstage. Rather than opting to play him as a vaudeville villain, Wan finds a human side to Angelo’s moral conflict. The best moments are his thrilling exchanges with Isabella. As little more than a virtuous damsel in several different kinds of distress, she is not quite as interesting a character. Nevertheless, in Roseanna Frascona’s hands she has far more vivacity than the writing warrants. These successes are all the more important given how difficult the play must be to pitch. Needs has opted to emphasise its darker undercurrents, but the comedy is clearly there, sometimes to detrimental effect. Liam Wells has good wit and range as Lucio but his (perhaps unintentionally) amusing interruptions would ruin the Angelo/Isabella tension were the two not played so strongly. Few other cast members find the correct balance between making Shakespeare’s dialogue presentable in a modern setting and ‘Ac-Ting’ by ‘Ac-Tors.’ As Escalus, Jack Chedburn is unacceptably flat. More than anything else he seems to be wondering whether he left the oven on, and his scenes drag horribly without the dynamic presence of Wan. Admittedly he wasn’t off book, but he’s going to need a lot of work when Wan and Frascona are so good. It really is an excellently drilled production. Needs is an uncommonly sharp director, with a keen eye for detail and a rare will to explore the full potential of the space. This is that rarest of things: a student Shakespeare show with the nous and daring to breathe some new life into the text. Assuming the Duke, who missed the press preview, is up to standard and that a stage covered in Socialist-Realist posters of Krishna Omkar (for it is he) doesn’t put you off, this should be a cracker.By Max Seddon

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